Small Wars Journal

Communities Not Tribes: Why Future Threats Are All Around Us

Sun, 01/26/2020 - 7:57am

Communities Not Tribes: Why Future Threats Are All Around Us

Jonathan C. Nielsen

Is your community safe?

For the last two decades the perception that terrorist organizations operated as isolated, closely knit, and homogenous groups captivated the greater defense enterprise.  Threats such as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Boka Haram, and even Iran, China, and Russia are believed to be geographically limited and membership restricted. Regardless of the location, threat, or era, it is easy to conflate the attributes of current threats with those of past adversaries as one and the same. In doing so, there is the tendency to continue to apply well-understood and universal strategies to threats that are perceived as the newest version of a known idea, model, or practice.  Why do we persist on this flawed logic?  Perhaps as we embark on a new decade, the traditional defense strategy lens needs to refocus its aperture.

Connected communities will define the global threats of the next decade.  Understanding the military, political, and economic influences of these groups will separate the contenders from the leaders in the future Great Power Competition that encompasses far more than nation states.  Communities are tightly knit groups that share a common belief, interest, or idea that supports fellow members.1 Members of a community are active in recognizing current members and integrating new individuals to increase reach and influence. The members of a community have a social responsibility to adhere to a recognized order. Such order can be governmental law for a large group or a prescribed directive for a smaller community. By understanding the social responsibilities, one can gain a deeper insight into the focus, goals, and capabilities of a particular group.  Perhaps the basic knowledge in theoretical framework of communities and their shared attributes will provide leaders with the understanding to address the current global threat architecture. 

Communitarianism offers an imperative framework that broadens the perspective of the Great Power Competition.  Communitarianism “emphasizes the importance of community in the functioning of political life, in the analysis and evaluation of political institutions, and in understanding human identity and well-being.”2  The political and public community must be constantly protected and improved in order to achieve objectives that are central to the ideas of the community’s vision.3 The objectives of the community are far more important than individual pursuits as the role of the individual is to serve the community and in return the community will provide for the individual.  In order to increase influence and reach, a community strives to contain differences while cultivating a new moral, social, and public order that serves the interest of the united following.  Failing to do so, cultivates a community of strangers pursuing their own interests that lack virtue and standards of defined tradition.4

There are four basic tenets to understand the communitarianism model that raises awareness of the current threat architecture. These tenants are not all encompassing but provide a foundational understanding. First, communities are moral groups.  They may not seem so from an outsider’s perspective, but to the internal audience, their cause is just.   Communitarianism groups strive to live in a stable and flourishing community without threatening or destroying human life or property.5 A conflicting view of this tenant is that communities may view acts of violence against non-community members as not threating, but essential and in some cases moral acts. In fact, these communities deem such behavior as a means to live in a stable environment that abides by their principles and beliefs. As such, they deem violence directed toward a challenging community as a means to a justified end to achieve a stable community and represents a moral cause.

Second, loyalty to the community is the principle focus.  A community only wants members that commit to the collective ideals and prescribed behavior.6 This second tenant creates restrictions to membership, as members must be ideologically, historically, or in some other aspect connected to the group. However, loyalty to a community can also be achieved through coercive means for members that are not as willing to join or lack some degree of connection to the group. A failure to abide by the second tenant may result in community members taking violent action against non-loyal or non-members to preserve the status of the community.

Third, community objectives are not challenged in order to maintain stability and collective focus.7 Communities have a strict adherence to behavior that places the group above the individual. Individual members within that community do not challenge the established ideas or vision of the community or they could potentially face repercussion from the collective whole.

Last, leaders strive to keep the group together through a defined structure and unified effort focused on the community’s vision.8 This defined structure does not necessarily represent a hierarchy, but rather an understood behavior and obligated commitment from each member. Failing to abide by these tenants may result in a member being removed from the community.

In contrast to communities and communitarianism, tribes and tribalism tended to be the theme to define connected threats over the past two decades.  Tribes are also a group of united members that pursue a collective objective. They are a social group of families or clans that are linked generationally and dependent on the actions of each member of the tribe. Members of a tribe have a permanent integration and link based on traditions and a legacy of common descent. Similar to a community, members of a tribe work together on behalf of the tribe and have a strong feeling of pride and identity that separates them from non-members. However, different from a community, the social foundation and orientation of a tribe is based in a cultural or ethnic identity where as a community’s social foundation unites likeminded individuals based on ideas.9 Tribes may be grouped together to form a larger higher order under a defined identity while a community remains an independent entity that pursues the united common goals of the members.

Similar to communitarianism, tribalism focuses on understanding groups and the actions of its members. Both theories focus on how people identify themselves with a group through social, economic, political, and security perspectives. While communitarianism focuses on the actions and what brings the members of a community together, tribalism focuses primarily on the traditions that bring the members of the group together. Individual members of a tribe are linked by generational traits, but manifest collectively and assume a tribal identity based on social distinctiveness, need, defense, or desire to separate.10 Tribalism is a sound framework to understand threats that are regionally isolated, but not globally connected.

Communitarianism defines how actors in the Great Power Competition will redefine the nature of threats are connected.  Communities are classified under one of five purposes: interest, action, place, practice, or circumstance. A community of interest is a group with shared passions that come together to exchange information, ask questions, and improve their understanding.11 A community of action is a collective group that seeks to achieve a desired change on a particular matter or interest.  A community of place is a bounded group that collectively contributes and shares a common location such as residence, work, or interest.12 A community of practice (CoP) is a group of people who share a concern for something and do it better as they interact regularly.13 Last, a community of circumstance brings people together by a shared life experience influenced by the size of their community, leadership, and composition rather than a shared interest.14

The five distinct classifications form various different types of communities. These defined types of communities have unique qualities, but all share multiple attributes regardless of their distinct differences. Defining these common attributes provides a unified framework to understand how communities form, function, and focus their actions. Considering the countless different communities, one may assess that there are four definitive attributes shared across all. The four attributes are: agreed goals and beliefs; focus on sharing and participating; social structure of members; and disciplined practices. Regardless of the community that one examines, these attributes exist in some fashion to serve the members and the objectives.  Defining each of these attributes with respect to current threats will define clear lines of efforts to exploit adversary weaknesses and build internal strength.  

What does all of this mean for the Great Power Competition? The tenants and attributes of a community may serve defense leaders very little to understand the current state of play if we continue to strive for the same objectives that have served us well in the past.  Although traditional approaches may continue to yield fruitful results against the current threat, history repeatedly reminds us of the consequences if we fail to innovate and are forced to adapt to counter the capabilities and advantages of our enemy.  Time for a new set of glasses.

End Notes

1. Graham Crow, “Community,” Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology Online, accessed 1 December 2017,

2. Amitai Etzioni, “Communitarianism,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed 4 February 2017,

3. Ibid.

4. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 263.

5. Robert Bellah, “Community Properly Understood: A Defense of Democratic Communitarianism,” The Responsive Community 6, no. 1 (Winter 1995/96): 4.

6. Bellah, “Community Properly Understood: A Defense of Democratic Communitarianism,” 4.

7. Ibid.

8. Bellah, “Community Properly Understood: A Defense of Democratic Communitarianism,” 4.

9. Kanakasena Deka, Assam’s Crisis: Myth and Reality (New Delhi: Mittal Publication, 1983), 90.

10. Paul James, Globalism, Nationalism, Tribalism Bringing Theory Back In (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2006), 247.

11. France Henri and B. Pudelko, “Understanding and Analyzing Activity and Learning in Virtual Communities,” Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 19, no. 4 (December 2003): 478.

12. Daniel Kemmis, Community and the Politics of Place (Norman: Oklahoma University Press, 1992), 11.

13. Jean Lave, “Situating Learning in Communities of Practice. Perspectives on Socially Shared Recognition,” in Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition, eds. Lauren B. Resnick, John M. Levine, and Stephanie D. Teasley (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1991), 63-82.

14. Dan Chekki, ed., Research in Community Sociology, vol. 9, Varieties of Community Sociology (Greenwich, CT: Jai Press, 1999), 65-88.


Bellah, Robert. “Community Properly Understood: A Defense of Democratic Communitarianism.” The Responsive Community 6, no. 1 (Winter 1995/96): 49-54.

Bellah, Robert, Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven Tipton. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Chekki, Dan, ed. Research in Community Sociology. Vol. 9, Varieties of Community Sociology. Greenwich, CT: Jai Press, 1999.

Crow, Graham. “Community.” Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology Online. Accessed 1 December 2017.

Deka, Kanakasena. Assam’s Crisis: Myth and Reality. New Delhi: Mittal Publication, 1983.

Etzioni, Amitai. “Communitarianism.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed 4 February 2017.

Henri, France, and B. Pudelko. “Understanding and Analyzing Activity and Learning in Virtual Communities.” Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 19, no. 4 (December 2003): 474-487.

James, Paul. Globalism, Nationalism, Tribalism Bringing Theory Back In. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2006.

Kemmis, Daniel. Community and the Politics of Place. Norman: Oklahoma University Press, 1992.

Lave, Jean. “Situating Learning in Communities of Practice.” In Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition, edited by Lauren B. Resnick, John M. Levine, and Stephanie D. Teasley, 63-82. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1991.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.

About the Author(s)

Jonathan C. Nielsen, PhD, is an infantry officer in the United States Army and currently an operations officer in 3rdBrigade, 101stAirborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell, Kentucky.  His assignments include tours in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.  Follow him on Twitter @J_C_Nielsen



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